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The Curiously Unscientific Christopher Hitchens

By Mark D. Roberts | Monday, June 18, 2007

Part 10 of series: god is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens: A Response
Permalink for this post / Permalink for this series

Christopher Hitchens loves science. Rightly, he understands that science has enabled human beings to understand our world in astounding ways. In many ways he sees science as replacing religion in human experience. For example, he writes: “Thanks to the telescope and the microscope, [religion] no longer offers an explanation of anything important” (p. 282).

Scientific inquiry is noted for its effort to be objective, to study the data carefully, to put aside prejudice, and to seek the truth, whatever it might be. (Yes, yes, I know some scientists don’t do this, but the best ones try, and with considerable success.) One can approach life scientifically even if one is not studying natural phenomena. You see this sort of thing among anthropologists, for example, who study tribal peoples through careful observation, seeking to “get inside the heads” of peoples quite different from themselves in order to make sense of their particular customs.

One of the things I find curious about Christopher Hitchens is the contradiction between his love of science and his unscientific approach to the study of religion. To be sure, he has gathered some data about religion, most of it having to do with religion’s failures and oddities. But absent from god is not Great is anything like a scientific approach to religious phenomena.

During my interview with Hitchens I said, more than once, that it seems like he and I inhabit alternative universes. I said that because, among other things, his view of what Christians believe and experience is so contrary to my view, and I’ve been a practicing Christian for 44 years. For example, in one place Hitchens writes that believers claim, “Not just to know, but to know everything” (p. 10). Now even allowing for a good bit of hyperbole, this statement reflects nothing of my experience as a believer. I do claim to know certain things, but I freely admit the fallible nature of my knowledge. Has Hitchens ever spent any time with thoughtful Christians (or other religious folk) who wrestle openly with matters of faith, who sometimes struggle with doubt, and who freely admit their own ignorance? If not, I could introduce him to dozens of such people. Moreover, I can’t even begin to think that I know more than a tiny percentage of what can be known. Know everything???? If Hitchens thinks this is what the average religious person claims, then he knows little about the average religious person, at least in my experience.

One of the more biting reviews of god is not Great appreared in the Washington Post. It was written by Stephen Prothero, a highly regarded scholar of religion, the author of Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, and the chair of Boston University’s religion department. Near the end of his review Prothero writes: “I have never encountered a book whose author is so fundamentally unacquainted with its subject.” Ouch!

On the way to earning my PhD in New Testament, I did a MA in the study of religion. I had the privilege of learning from some of the finest scholars of religion. They represented a wide range of religious traditions, including agnosticism. These people had devoted their lives to the careful, objective, and critical study of religion. They were more than willing to accept the premise that sometimes religion is harmful. In fact, several of my professors were particularly unhappy with my breed of Christianity (evangelical). But in all of my years in graduate school, not once did I hear even one professor come anywhere near the claim that “religion poisons everything.” This particular claim stirs up emotions and sells books, to be sure. But it reflects an utterly biased approach to the study of religion, something that plainly contradicts Christopher Hitchens’s love of science. His writing would have far more credibility and, in the end, much more to contribute to the world, if he would take the time actually to understand actual religious people. Of course then he couldn’t truly claim that religion poisons everything, because he’d know that this simply isn’t true from any sort of objective, scientific perspective.

Topics: Hitchens: god is not Great |

22 Responses to “The Curiously Unscientific Christopher Hitchens”

  1. Matthew Goggins Says:
    June 18th, 2007 at 6:03 pm


    You have written a strong critique of Chris Hitchens’ book. And Stephen Prothero’s review is also strong and very cogent.

    I cannot bring myself to agree with you, however, that Mr. Hitchens’ argument is fundamentally unscientific, or that Mr. Hitchens is unfamiliar with the sympathetic, good variety of religious believers.

    To write a worthy response to your latest comments, I should really go back and carefully read “God Is Not Great” again. Then I could judge better which of your complaints are on target, and exactly how much they are on target.

    In the meantime, I will note that Mr. Hitchens states in no uncertain terms that morality and religion are by no means incompatible. He merely asserts that religion is optional for morality, and we are much better off leaving it by the wayside altogether.

    Since he admits the compatibility of religion and morality, he also admits that you are right when you assert the existence many, many people who are religious and who also happen to be decent, humane, and very moral people.

    When Mr. Hitchens says that religion poisons everything, he means that the very nature of religion is such that it must have a malign influence on people. This is not a question which is necessarily best tackled through strictly scientific methods. A study of history and a weighing of the evidence of one’s personal experience is going to figure heavily into the analysis.

    Early on in his book, Mr. Hitchens goes on a short tour of world cities in which he highlights some of the more prominent religious fanaticisms that are or have been prevalent in various hotspots around the world. The survey gains a lot of power and poignancy from the fact that Mr. Hitchens is enumerating this list on the basis of his own personal experience as a well-traveled war correspondent and investigative journalist.

    Mr. Hitchens could have chosen to limit his observations to generalizations that are only true for every religious believer in every religion at all times and in all places. And I’m sure an intelligent and worthy book would have been the result.

    But such an approach would have eviscerated “God Is Not Great” of some of its most compelling anecdotes and evidence. “God Is Not Great” is a thoughtful, compelling book in great part because it refuses to shrink from considering and analyzing the sins and the fallacies and the horrors that religious folk have in fact committed in God’s name.

  2. » Blog Archive » Richard Dawkins finds Christ? Says:
    June 18th, 2007 at 6:03 pm

    […] Richard Dawkins — erstwhile captain of a veritable army of lost souls — has posted an extensive interview with Pastor Mark Roberts, the renowned New Testament scholar […]

  3. ChrisK Says:
    June 18th, 2007 at 7:55 pm

    Dr. Roberts,
    You accuse Hitchens of exaggerating, yet you approve of Prothero’s over-the-top: “I have never encountered a book whose author is so fundamentally unacquainted with its subject.”

    Prothero is not exaggerating?

    When Prothero says he “never” encountered a book… it makes me think of Hitchens saying religion poisons “everything.”

    Why is one exaggeration okay with you and not the other?

    When Hitchens ridicules his opponents, you say its bad, but you’re silent with people like Hewitt’s blog where it’s nearly a daily event to ridicule John Edwards with sophomoric photoshop work?

    I’m sympathetic to your arguments about ridicule and exaggeration, but you lose people like me when it seems you’re biased against targets who aren’t your friends or aren’t sympathetic to your point of view.

  4. Matt Dabbs Says:
    June 18th, 2007 at 8:33 pm

    Great blog! Thank you for all the great resources and insightful posts. I will be back again and again. God bless

  5. JD Bryant Says:
    June 18th, 2007 at 9:07 pm

    When Hitchens says that “religion poisons everything” he has gotten the problem backwards; everything poisons religion. This mistake reveals Hitchens’ lack of understanding of true Christianity.

  6. ChrisK Says:
    June 18th, 2007 at 10:07 pm

    re: the link “” gives us (comment two)…pretty cool that the debate between Pastor Roberts and Chris Hitchens is now on Dawkins’s website. Dr. Roberts, I honestly think that’s a compliment to how interesting and thoughtful this debate was on both sides.

  7. Kurt Norlin Says:
    June 19th, 2007 at 12:01 am

    Gotta say, Mark, I think ChrisK has a good point in the last couple grafs of his response no. 3.

  8. ChrisK Says:
    June 19th, 2007 at 6:30 am

    Hitchens is caustic, no doubt.

    But I think Hitch gives great credit where great credit is due to Dr. Roberts’s church’s work in China and other great Christian communities when in his debate with Pastor Roberts he said, “…there are many other Christians I know who do marvelous work in North Korea, for example, where the people are trying to escape from a prison slave state there, and also for keeping the issue of Darfur in front of the public. I think the Evangelical movement deserves a great deal of credit.” (from the transcript at

    Accept the praise, Dr. Roberts. China, North Korea, and Darfur are our real life Hells. I can say as another agnostic/atheist that I deeply admire and appreciate what you and the Christian community is doing there to help people who are without hope.

  9. HenryH Says:
    June 19th, 2007 at 10:27 am

    Matthew Goggins wrote:

    “In the meantime, I will note that Mr. Hitchens states in no uncertain terms that morality and religion are by no means incompatible. He merely asserts that religion is optional for morality, and we are much better off leaving it by the wayside altogether.”

    He may state that and he may believe that. However, (and this is based on the “Great God Debate,” rather than the book which I have not read) Hitchens also said, “Well, no, I’m afraid I think that the crimes of religion are innate in it.” I don’t believe he can have it both ways. To me, that sounds like someone who categorically rejects the idea that morality and religion are compatible.

    I think his mistake is the same as the one found in the phrase “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” That is, it assumes that mankind is not already corrupt. Power doesn’t so much corrupt as it allows our corruption to be made manifest. I don’t think you need to read or believe the Bible to observe the truth of the radical corruption of man. Mr. Hitchens clearly believes that religion is the poison. I don’t believe he is being objective.

  10. rw Says:
    June 19th, 2007 at 10:30 am


    Concerning your point about exaggeration, I don’t see how you can equate the hyperbole of the term ‘everything’with “I have never encountered a book whose author is so fundamentally unaquainted with its subject.”

    “Everything” would be considered an absolute any way you slice it. No room for exceptions or discussion. On the other hand, Dr. Prothero is relating his own personal experience as to authors of books. It MAY well be that Hitchens strikes him as the most fundamentally unaquainted with his subject. I’m sure there are other authors out there less familiar with whatever they’ve written about. Its just that Dr. Prothero hasn’t gotten around to reviewing them, and may never. As we can probably count Dr. Prothero as a subject matter expert on religion, I can give him the benefit of the doubt. Hitchens leaves himself no such room by his choice of words. BTW, I would think you could count yourself either as an agnostic or an atheist, but not both. Which is it?

  11. Brad Says:
    June 19th, 2007 at 10:42 am

    Darfur and other such places may be hell on earth but they are not hell. Secular praise of Christian work in these places is faint praise to be sure. Doing the “marvelous work” of easing the pain issued by the secular and materialistic regimes of this world may be the effect of Christian love but the point is to save souls. And to these ends some Christians give all. (for what would a secularist give his live and why would he?) If I condemn lawns and sow weeds in front of my house what right do I have to praise my neighbor for mowing part of (what is now) my untended weed patch?

    The scientific open mind should be a mind swept free of preconceptions not a mind poisoned to possible conclusions. To expel God from your preconceptions is not the same as to expel God from a list of possible conclusions. Science is not the exclusion of knowledge but the uninhibited seeking of knowledge.

    Mr. Hitchens wrote about a god that is not great. There are, and have been, many of these. Thankfully I know a God that is great. I pray that he may meet that God someday and truly learn what he aspires to know.

  12. Brad Says:
    June 19th, 2007 at 10:47 am

    There is a confusion that all that travels under the banner of “Christian” must be; or, that all that a Christian does is Christian. Do secularists demand that we condem all Islamics for the fact that some of them hate and kill? Why not?

  13. SonnyJim Says:
    June 19th, 2007 at 11:06 am

    Curiously Unscientific, or scientifically incurious? I think the latter actually sums it up. Anyone who is truly scientific and who acquaints himself with scientific knowledge would never state something as ridiculous as “Thanks to the telescope and the microscope, [religion] no longer offers an explanation of anything important” with its implication that the telescope and microscope have done anything more than reveal more and more questions about further unknowns.

    Its funny how many “atheists” rely on a dogmatic scientism that brooks no questions and hears no arguments.

  14. ChrisK Says:
    June 19th, 2007 at 9:15 pm

    Brad—-re: “…but the point is to save souls….” You seem to be making a surprising moral (immoral) point. Are you saying if there was no chance of saving souls in Darfur, i.e., no chance of converting non-Christians to Christians, then you wouldn’t be interested in helping them? Kind of a Bad Samaritan?

    rw—I’m an agnostic—I can’t prove there is no God—-but I emphasize I find it highly unlikely there ever would be reasonable evidence to prove a god. That’s why I sometimes throw in the “atheist” bit.

  15. Matthew Goggins Says:
    June 19th, 2007 at 9:38 pm


    To me, that sounds like someone who categorically rejects the idea that morality and religion are compatible.

    I do remember him saying that morality and religion are compatible.

    Before mentioning the compatibility of morality and religion, Mr. Hitchens makes a big deal out of how the scientist Laplace told Napoleon that his scientific theories did not need the “God hypothesis”. As a result of Laplace’s lack of need for a god, religion was forvevermore merely optional, both in terms of cosmology/metaphysics, and also in terms of morality.

    Mr. Hitchens’ next point then, is that both religion and atheism are compatible with morality, and they are both compatible with immorality as well. But what you really need religion for, in his view, is as a motivation to commit the most heinous crimes: genital mutilation, genocide, subjugation of women, suicide bombing, and so on.

    So you are right when you point out his belief in crimes that are inherent to religion. And perhaps you are right as well to consider his analysis to be less than objective. After all, that is really more for us to judge than for him — he is too close to his book to be able to say “it’s wonderful” or “it stinks”. He needs feedback from people like you and me.


    If all Mr. Hitchens did was to catalogue crimes by religious people, then I would agree that his logic is faulty.

    But he also provides what he considers to be a strong connection between religious beliefs, especially the attitude of faith, and the crimes themselves. He links the crimes with the religion, or at least he tries to do so.

    And yes, Mr. Hitchens does condemn Islam on similar grounds. As far as he is concerned, it is the attitude of faith which is the problem, and not just the content of the beliefs.


    Anyone who is truly scientific and who acquaints himself with scientific knowledge would never state something as ridiculous as “Thanks to the telescope and the microscope, [religion] no longer offers an explanation of anything important” with its implication that the telescope and microscope have done anything more than reveal more and more questions about further unknowns.

    You raise an interesting point, but the truth is that science has contributed enormously to the accumulated knowledge of humanity.

    Those truths are tentative in a way that religious truths could never be, but it is precisely from their tentativeness that scientific truths gain their robustness and usefulness.

    Mark cited this very quote as an example of Mr. Hitchens’ unjustified exaggerating. But when read in context, the quote makes a lot of sense and is 100% justified in my view.

    Mr. Hitchens is not saying religion has nothing to say since the rise of science — he is just saying that anything a religion could say that goes against science (for example, the earth being the center of the solar system) is not going to be accepted anymore by educated people as an explanation of how the world works.

  16. Brad Says:
    June 20th, 2007 at 11:00 am


    I most certainly am NOT saying that we, as Christians, should help only to save souls but that the NATURE of the Christian conscience is to reach out to the suffering. That outreach is most often given without regard to the spiritual condition of the suffering and even knowing that the suffering exists BECAUSE of the spiritual condition of the sufferer.

    Christians (in my opinion) have a dual role and this is what confuses non-Christians. As Christians we are called to “proclaim the Good News.” As Christians we are also called to “Love our neighbors” and even to “Love our enemies.”

    One of the leaders of the Salvation Army famously said that “you wrap sandwiches in tracts.” A nice way to hit both bases.

    My point in my previous post (disguised by poor writing) is the propensity of secularists to proclaim freedom from religious moralists and then laud the Christians that go into the resultant hell-holes to help the human flotsam; many times at genuine risk to their own lives. And the thanks the Christians get is a back-handed “thanks, but leave the moralizing to us Humanists.”

    When you ask non-believers why they hate Christianity they point to despicable acts, un-Christian acts, done by people wearing the self-appropriated sheep’s clothing of Christianity. Acts committed to raise oneself, or enrich oneself, whether done by a criminal or a preacher are not Christian acts.

  17. Brad Says:
    June 20th, 2007 at 11:08 am

    By the way…If there were proof of God there could no longer be free-will. There is, however, plenty of EVIDENCE of God. The whole of creation, from the un-plausibility of spontaneous DNA to the extraordinary complexity of the cosmos, shouts out “Intelligent creator.” Ironicly, science has almost found God by excluding any other possibility.

  18. Rebecca Says:
    June 22nd, 2007 at 8:39 am

    Michael Novak has a compelling review of Hitchens’ book and the other recent ones attacking belief in God. See,pubID.25770/pub_detail.asp.

  19. Rebecca Says:
    June 22nd, 2007 at 8:40 am

    Michael Novak has a compelling review of Hitchens’ book and the other recent ones attacking belief in God. See,pubID.25770/pub_detail.asp

  20. Wrought Says:
    August 10th, 2007 at 3:08 pm

    You don’t need to be scientific to be an atheist, it just helps.

    When people declared the world flat, they had the evidence of looking out at a flat world from the top of a hill.

    When they declared the existence of God, they had the evidence of looking out on a world they could not explain.

    Science is a relatively new idea. Its made massive progress in the short time its been alive and kicking.

    Religion is an old idea and it’s on the way out.

    This blog is just another example of its death throes.

  21. Ranger Says:
    January 9th, 2009 at 12:17 am

    I don’t know if you will ever come back and read this response since it’s over a year later. I don’t mean to come across as arrogant, so please don’t take my comments that way. It is evident though that you are not familiar with the topics you mention, and that you are not looking empirically at the evidence, nor looking honestly at the history of ideas and Western thought.

    You seem unfamiliar with religion and with statistics regarding religious movements (including atheism) worldwide. You might consider doing some reading in theology or the history of religious thought, because you would very quickly see that your statement about the origin of religion is simply untenable. I’d suggest reading Christian, Islamic and atheistic viewpoints on the origins of religion because it will offer you a broader perspective and allow you to see where different people are coming from.

    You say, “Science is a relatively new idea. Its made massive progress in the short time its been alive and kicking. Religion is an old idea and it’s on the way out.”

    Actually this idea appears to be on the way out, as people have been saying it for three hundred years and the evidence simply contradicts the claim. It’s especially on the way out among scientists and sociologists who actually study trends and movements. In fact, atheism worldwide (as of mid-2008) stands at around 145.6 million worldwide of those who positively identify as “atheist” (2.3% worldwide). This is down from 165.3 million in 1970 (4.4% worldwide), and experts expect the trend to continue so that by 2025 worldwide atheists will account for a population of 147.7 million (1.8% worldwide). There’s plenty of evidence of a movement towards Christianity throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America, and toward Islam and generic spirituality throughout Europe. This seems to go against your statement because nations such as China and Europe as a whole are heavily influenced by science. Rodney Stark, who grew up Lutheran but is now rather agnostic, has shown statistically that even in America where atheists say they have been growing rapidly, the statistics in mid-2008 remain the same as in mid-2000, and the same as in 1900 (i.e. 4% of total population).

    The only way around these statistics is to include all non-religious in the statistics. In America, the category of non-religious has grown in the last 40 years, from around 8-10% to around 13-15%, but worldwide it also is trending downwards. In 1970, non-religious were 14% of the total population, in 2000 they were 12.5% of the total population, and experts predict that they will amount to 10.1% of the total population. Of course, if the non-religious elsewhere are similar to the self proclaimed non-religious where I live in China, then they are religious by most accounts. I know many self proclaimed non-religious who daily offer incense to ancestors, pray to the divine spirit, etc. but do not fall into the major religious categories and thus are “non-religious” in surveys.

    Statistics such as these are available on the web in varying quality, but more accurate trends and analysis can be found in the published and peer-reviewed work of Rodney Stark (University of Washington), Philip Jenkins (Penn State), as well as elsewhere. Nobody is really doubting the data or the recent growth of religion, but various opinions about the future exist.

    Of course your predictions are philosophical and not empirical anyway. I would suggest though that if you’re going to be scientific in your sociological opinions that you at least be honest with the data. Religion is simply not on the way out statistically, but is growing worldwide.

    I’d also suggest you do a study of the history of science and scientific ideas, so that you can see that the statement about science being a new idea is incorrect, and that the foundations of Western science are actually from medieval Islam and Renaissance Christianity.

  22. Thoughtful?atheist Says:
    October 21st, 2009 at 6:45 am

    Hello all,

    I am not so much responding to the substance of this piece as I would like to make a general comment, having just read the entire critique of God Is Not Great and the comments. I am an atheist and I tend to hold very much with the Harris/Dawkins school of thought. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate finding a website like this, where there are people willing to respond to ‘new atheism’ substantially and thoughtfully. I can’t speak for all atheists any more than you all can speak for all Christians, but I find it utterly refreshing to see an actual constructive and respectful critical dialogue. This is what has been largely missing in the response to the new atheists, whose arguments I often feel are unfairly and inaccurately portrayed. I think it is the only way that atheists and believers can ever truly dialogue. This site is an oasis in the sea of noise that constitutes the atheist-religionist debate on the internet.


Thanks for your willingness to make a comment. Note: I do not moderate comments before they are posted, though they are automatically screened for profanities, spam, etc., and sometimes the screening program holds comments for moderation even though they're not offensive. I encourage open dialogue and serious disagreement, and am always willing to learn from my mistakes. I will not delete comments unless they are extraordinarily rude or irrelevant to the topic at hand. You do need to login in order to make a comment, because this cuts down on spam. You are free to use a nickname if you wish. Finally, I will eventually read all comments, but I don't have the time to respond to them on a consistent basis because I've got a few other demands on my time, like my "day job," my family, sleep, etc.

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